March 25, 2013

The Committee to Stop FBI Repression denounces the lecture held at DePaul University

The Committee to Stop FBI Repression denounces the lecture held at DePaul University on March 12th, which purported to be a continuing legal education seminar and titled, “Fighting Terrorism in the Courtroom.” Barry Jonas, a prosecutor for the United States Attorney’s Office, described government targeting of the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), formerly the largest Muslim charity in the U.S., for providing aid to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and siege in Gaza. 

As prosecutor of the HLF, he argued that its humanitarian aid, education of children, and health care was “material support for terrorism.”  Over the course of two trials (the first ending in a hung jury), the government attacked the HLF, claiming it was aware of the activities of Hamas while supporting its charitable or other non-violent activity. Similarly, Stephen Landes spoke about a civil case he litigated in which individuals and organizations (including the HLF) who engaged in charitable fundraising were held civilly liable for a shooting in the West Bank about which they had no specific knowledge or involvement.

 DePaul’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) held a silent protest outside the lecture hall which featured students wearing gags over their mouths, and holding a Palestinian flag and a sign that read “Stop Persecuting Activists.” SJP and community members also protested in the street outside the event, effectively engaging passersby with chants such as “Charity is not a crime, Free, Free Palestine!” and “Hands of our families, hands off our friends, Barry Jonas this must end.” Several audience members asked critical questions, and a few made statements of protest and left the room, undermining the legitimacy bestowed on the speakers through a so-called “academic” platform.

Jonas reinforced the accusation of several audience members that the prosecutions were politically motivated when he explained that one of the reasons the particular individuals were targeted was because they opposed the US-sponsored “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians that resulted in the Oslo Accords of 1993.  These accords were used for more than a decade to enable the Israeli government to continue expropriating Palestinian land and suppress resistance to the Israeli occupation and apartheid system.

When challenged by an audience member about the use of government resources to relentlessly target such individuals using secret evidence, even after the original trial ended in a hung jury, Jonas denied that secret evidence was used and attempted to discredit the audience member on the basis that he had not read the complete trial transcripts. But upon further research, it turns out that Jonas’ denials were unsurprisingly disingenuous.  The government was indeed permitted to use secret evidence in the HLF case. The court allowed the prosecution to keep secret the identity and credentials of members of the Israeli Security Agency who testified for the government, ruling that national security and safety concerns outweighed the right of the defendants to conduct meaningful cross-examination. U.S. v. El-Mezain, 664 F.3d 467, 492-93 (5th Cir. 2011).

The court also refused to compel the government to produce untranslated declassified recordings of about 10 years’  worth of conversations the government had intercepted. Id. at 524-25.  Such access could have been crucial to the defense, as the government’s translations had previously been found to be biased and inaccurate; for example, in 2004, when the Department of Justice Inspector General investigated the secret evidence used to designate HLF as a terrorist organization at the request of HLF, an “independent translating service reviewed the declassified evidence and cited 67 discrepancies or errors in translation in a single four-page FBI document.” American Civil Liberties Union, “Blocking Faith, Freezing Charity,” June 2009.

At the event, one of the salient features of the strategies Jonas and Landes promoted was the consistent use of racism and guilt by association. Landes pointed out, with a grin on his face, that one of the favorable rulings he received in the Boim v. Holy Land Foundation et al. case was obtained shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Therefore, he implied that cases against Palestinian charities and supporters of human rights in Palestine can be furthered by associating them with unrelated terrorism against the United States by al-Qaida. Jonas reinforced that point by posting a video of a bearded man wearing a turban who he claimed had connections with al-Qaida, and another video of the same man which was found in the trash of one of the unindicted co-conspirators in the HLF case. Associating that man with members of the HLF was apparently persuasive in imputing violent motives on the defendants, even when there was no evidence the defendants engaged in or funded violent activity.

Another effective strategy, he said, was to repeatedly present pictures of (mostly bearded) Hamas leaders to the jury. Unlike in mafia cases in which the names of the mafia members are easy to pronounce and their faces recognizable to jurors, he said, it is useful to repeatedly show members of the jury photos of these Hamas leaders along with their names. This thinly-veiled attempt at capitalizing on racist stereotypes to discredit defendants in the HLF case seemed to resonate with audience members at the talk as well; one woman said afterwards that she was afraid one of the audience members who challenged Jonas and Landes verbally was going to pull out a gun, despite the fact that none used physical aggression. The only individual who used violence was an audience member attempting to silence a questioner critical of the speakers, shoving some papers at him while screaming, “Shut up!”

Attendees at the event also learned that another effective tool in the prosecution of terrorism cases is the use of faux terrorism experts and false facts about the political situation at issue. The speakers asserted that it is important to show how seemingly innocuous aims like educating children in Gaza are “bad,” and claimed, by way of example, that Palestinian schools were used to hide weapons. That lie is routinely put forward by the Israeli government in attempting to justify its bombing of schools and civilian areas, but has been unsubstantiated and repeatedly discredited by human rights investigators and journalists, including the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (“the Goldstone Report”).

Neither speaker directly addressed the concern of one audience member about the use in American courts of evidence obtained by the Israeli government through torture and other human rights abuses.  In fact, their approach was to deny the existence of such abuses. For example, Landes pointed out that one way in which the government was able to get a motion to suppress denied in the United States v. Salah case was through the patently false claim that the Israeli government did not torture Palestinians.

Jonas also said that an important strategy in the HLF case was to “educate” the jury about Hamas. This “education” was the testimony of Matt Levitt, a deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Department of the Treasury with a distinct pro-Israeli government agenda. As Sara Roy, one of the foremost researchers and analysts on Gaza and Palestine, wrote about Levitt in her review of his book about Hamas, his analysis “reduces this increasingly complex and sophisticated organization to an insular, one-dimensional …entity dedicated solely to violence …and Israel’s destruction,” and “discounts the critical connections between changing patterns of protest and structures of society, competing visions of a Palestinian social and political order, and contesting Islamic and secular definitions of meaning and legitimacy.” Through miseducation and distortion of the political and human rights context in Israel and the Occupied Territories, therefore, the United States can get around constitutional concerns and influence jurors in favor of convicting humanitarian workers and human rights activists.

Also telling was the organizers’ attempt to avoid any discussion of the broader policy questions that the event topic naturally brought about, such as how the government goes about choosing the targets of its investigations and prosecutions, and the extent to which those prosecutions further the United States’ support for Israeli’s military occupation of Palestine and collective punishment of civilian populations. Professor Stephen Resnicoff, who introduced the event, interrupted certain questions along those lines, claiming they were not relevant. At the prompting of Landes, Resnicoff ended the talk 30 minutes before the scheduled time.

The Committee to Stop FBI Repression denounces the event and reaffirms the constitutional rights of U.S. residents to make charitable contributions and engage in activism in support of the besieged Palestinian victims of authoritarian and apartheid Israel.  We call for freedom for the Holy Land Five and an end to Jonas’ investigation of the 23 Midwest peace and international solidarity activists.